For the past two years, I’ve been swarmed by teenagers. As a freshman composition teacher, a high school tutor, an intern coordinator, an alumni interviewer,and an older sister, I hang out with people six to twelve years younger than me all the time.
If you want a guaranteed way to feel old while you’re still perfectly young, spending time with teenagers is it. And not for the shallow reasons—like the pore-less skin, the inexplicable high-waisted booty shorts, or learning that one of your students saw Russell Peters’s first DVD at age eleven, while you remember watching it with ten people crowded onto an extra-long twin bed.
No, more than anything, being around teenagers reminds me how it felt to really think about life for the first time, to make my first heavy decisions, to look around me and see an infinite number of things to love and to try. Though I had passions and all-consuming hobbies as a kid too, around middle school life took on new urgency.
I discovered music other than my parents’ and transcribed lyrics obsessively in gel pen on my notebooks. All my available spaces—my shoes, my backpack, the cardboard box where I kept my CDs—exploded in quotes and doodles because I couldn’t contain myself. I had, as Jack Kerouac put it, “an irrational lust to set down everything I [knew].”
And in my frenzy, I didn’t care whether I looked stupid or made myself vulnerable. Or rather, I did care, but it didn’t stop me. This month, I interviewed a handful of prospective students for my college. I’ve been doing this volunteer work for two years, but this winter, because my youngest brother is also applying to colleges, the whole process feels closer to home than ever.
As I sit across from these high school seniors at various coffee shops around Los Angeles, I’m struck by their bravery. Gamely, they’ve come to meet with a stranger and put it all—their accomplishments, their hopes, their selves—out there for evaluation. And in the college application process, our interview is only the very beginning.
Maybe I’m soft, but I like all the students I’ve ever interviewed. Still, I notice their shortcomings. Some slip and tell me all their faults (“I always do things at the last minute”). Some share unbaked ambitions, like being the CEO of a company—whichever company. Yet as I talk with them, I see my own flaws projected back. At eighteen, did I know how to present myself to my best advantage? Do I know now?
These days, trying to prove myself competent to people ten and twenty years older than I am, I’ve somehow decided it best to reign myself in, to tread lightly and, when I open my mouth, to be agreeable and reasonable first. I hesitate to share my dreams lest they sound “unbaked,” my philosophies lest they sound ridiculous.
Nobody told me to behave this way; it just felt the safest in a vulnerable time. But the more I see of teenagers bubbling over with ideas and personality, the more I remember how it felt to be that way—full of unrealized, vibrating potential — and wonder how I let it go in the first place.